Soccer was never my game. But a recent visit to Berlin, just before the World Cup games began, showed me the electric excitement generated by a sport I knew nothing about. For most of the rest of the world, the World Cup is the World Series, the Super Bowl and the NBA finals writ large. Watching several games with Latin-American waiters and bartenders back in Washington even taught me a few intricacies of the game.
Nevertheless, for an American, picking a team to root for is easier based on the culture and politics of the country rather than the country's team. Having family and friends in Germany made it easy for me to root for Germany in its first-round 4 to 0 victory over Costa Rica. My daughter telephoned from Berlin to report that every time the German team scored, the windows rattled in the apartments and shops above the park where she sat with my twin granddaughters.
But my favorite first-round game was between Mexico and Iran, played in Nuremberg. Anybody playing Iran was my team. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the nutty but dangerous president of Iran, the denier of the Holocaust and sworn enemy of America and the West, naturally roots for Iran. That was more than enough to make Mexico my team. Unfair though this might be to the Iranian players, who may not like their president any more than I do, Iran became if only for a moment the Dallas Cowboys for a long-suffering Washington Redskins fan.
And it's not just me. A crowd of more than 1,200 persons, including prominent German politicians and Jewish leaders living in Germany, used the occasion to protest the Iranian president's denial of the Holocaust and his implied threat to "wipe Israel off the map." President Ahmadinejad told the German newsmagazine der Spiegel on the eve of the games: "If there really had been a Holocaust, Israel ought to be located in Europe, not in Palestine."
Germany has done more than any other European country to confront its anti-Semitic past, and the Germans are particularly sensitive to the Iranian president's over-the-top rhetoric. "We're clearly showing that Bavaria, Germany and the entire Western world stand firmly on the side of Israel and its Jewish citizens," Gunther Beckstein, Bavaria's interior minister and a member of the conservative Christian Social Union party, told the protesting crowd before the Mexico-Iran match. President Ahmadinejad's threatening language had put him outside the boundaries of the civilized world.
The denial of the Holocaust by the head of a nation is remarkable if only for being incredible, but President Ahmadinejad has a willing audience in the Islamic countries, where hatred of the Jews is the first article of the faith. The neo-Nazis in Germany have adopted Iran as their favorite team and continue to deny the Holocaust, too, but theirs is more likely convenient pretense. But the skinheads and thugs are particularly worrisome because the second-round match between Iran and Angola will be played in Leipzig, in the state of Saxony where the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party won 10 percent of the vote in the latest state parliamentary elections.
Germany, ever eager to show the world that its ugly past is truly past, was embarrassed when an African organization published a guide of "no-go" hot spots considered dangerous for dark-skinned fans to visit during the World Cup games. The issue of racism bubbled up in Potsdam when several men brutally beat an Ethiopian with German citizenship. The incident was exacerbated when Wolfgang Schauble, the federal interior minister, trying to cast doubt on the racist motivations of the mob, observed that "blond, blue-eyed people are also victims of violence." He quickly regretted the remarks and later said that it's important to fight all kinds of "extremism, violence and xenophobia." As hard as most Germans try to overcome their past, some of them still don't get it.
Islamist extremism is part of the modern mix; that's why most Germans don't want the Iranian President to attend any of the games. Michael Friedman, former deputy leader of Germany's Central Council of Jews, focused the issue succinctly. "We cannot greet the Hitler of the 21st century with a diplomatic line of least resistance," he said. "We have learned that you must resist from the very beginning." That's the lesson Germany and a large part of the rest of the world took a very long time to learn.